Art, love, jealousy and freedom are themes at the heart of Tove, the biopic of Swedish-Finnish Moomins creator Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti). Her drawings of the hippo-like Moomintrolls became world famous, graduating from books and comic strips to theater, TV series, movies and even a theme park. But the Tove we meet in 1944 Helsinki is struggling to pay the rent with her paintings, little knowing that her fortune will be made by the cartoons her sculptor father mocks.
Written by Eeva Putro and directed by Zaida Bergroth, and releasing domestically via Juno Films on June 3 and in the UK on July 9 through Blue Finch Film, the story explores evolving definitions of art through this father-daughter tension. But its deeper focus is on Tove Jansson as a person, and the fascinating milieu in which she lives.
This is liberal, post-war Helsinki, where artists mingle with politicians at illegal parties, sipping cocktails and swapping partners. Pöysti is excellent as the intelligent young artist who embraces life with gusto, while learning how to navigate it. Her on/off affair with Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney) provides the emotional backbone of the film — despite his marriage, they have a supportive mutual connection, though both of their ideals about open relationships are tested as the years go by. Tove is proudly free-spirited, but becomes conflicted when she falls for Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), a theater director who is also the mayor’s daughter.
Played by the statuesque Kosonen, Bandler is a dramatic presence, looming over her “little artist,” as she calls Jansson, with an enigmatic smile. “You should get married,” she advises her, “It’s very convenient to be married.” The word ‘lesbian’ is never mentioned; the pair use a coded language that becomes part of the Moomin series via the characters of Thingumy and Bob. It’s riveting to discover that these childhood cartoons are based on female lovers, dancing in the shadows of a world caught between acceptance and disapproval. Later scenes in Paris show a more openly queer culture, where women flirt freely in bars on the Rive Gauche.
This counter culture is presented in the style of a fairly conventional period drama — this trades in deft, simple dialogue and follows a steady chronological pace, using music of the era, from Benny Goodman to Edith Piaf. Like 2017’s Professor Marston & The Wonder Women, Tove is a traditional biopic of an unconventional character, whose imaginative art would go on to influence millions of children and adults. You’re left with an admiration for a charming, spirited woman who — thankfully — didn’t listen to her father.